Mrs. Kanner’s memories begin well before the rise of yemach shemo and show the gradual transformation of what was once one of the most civilized, “progressive,” and refined cultures in the world.
The book is apparently out of print, but can be ordered second-hand or found in frum libraries. It can also be legally downloaded here:
This ebook contains beautiful photographs of the Kanners which were not in the original CIS Publishers book, plus a few addendums at the end, one of which describes the 2 older Kanner girls' experiences in America before they reunited with their parents. (Lea, the youngest, was hidden by the French Underground.) Unfortunately, in addition to the trauma of the Shoah, the 2 older girls (Ruth & Eva) also experienced trauma in their new environment from family separation, being shifted from foster home to foster home, cultural and language adjustments, and much more. So while they were lucky to escape the final acts of the Shoah, they still experienced traumatizing challenges. Particularly for Eva, writing this book with her mother helped heal some of that trauma.
Early on, the Kanners realized what was happening.
In fact, the Kanners applied for a visa as early as 1934 and Mr. Kanner even made a pilot trip to Eretz Yisrael in 1935! He visited a niece in Tel Aviv, and together they heard the Nuremberg Laws announced on the radio.
The niece begged Mr. Kanner to remain and send for the rest of the family immediately. She even escorted him to the ship for his return trip, begging him to bring him and his family over immediately.
At one point, the Kanners even shipped their belongings to Tel Aviv, intending to follow soon after.
The Kanners were #1 on the list for their visa to Palestine.
Yet every time their turn came up, the Zionist Bureau for the Resettlement of German Jews gave the Kanners’ number to others, always claiming some kind of life-and-death urgency that prioritized others over the Kanners.
For some reason, even with Mr. Kanner’s incarceration in the awful Buchenwald camp in 1938, the Bureau still placed other "life-and-death" applicants before the Kanners and denied the Kanners their rightful visa. Ultimately, the Kanners were “number one” on the visa list for 5 years!
By the time the Bureau finally granted the Kanners their visas in 1939(!), it was too late. The Shoah had forced the Kanners to flee to France and they could not access their visas.
But Mr. Kanner was more cautious, more hesitant about breaking the law which he’d always upheld with such exemplary integrity and he was also reluctant to subject his family to such a sharp plunge in their standard of living.
And while in hindsight, it’s easy to condemn their postponement, the book shows the reality of the situation that makes it easy to understand Mr. Kanner’s very real concerns—particularly when illegal exit became deadly.
Yet out of the entire compelling memoir, one dynamic struck me in particular.
"Germany, ah, Germany..."
And as per Mrs. Kanner's noble self, she sought to avoid depression or useless reminiscing by assisting Nexon's nurse (a righteous gentile) in helping Mrs. Kanner's fellow Jews. This great chesed also helped save Mr. & Mrs. Kanner's life later on.
(Two Kanner daughters had been sent on a kindertransport to America and one daughter was hidden by the French Underground. And yes, b'chasdei Hashem, this entire family survived to be reunited in America much later.)
In Mrs. Kanner’s barracks, the women either sat and brooded silently or boasted of their once-classy lifestyle in pre-Nazi Germany while understandably complaining over their current circumstances.
For example, one reminisced (pg. 169), “Germany, ah, Germany…In Frankfurt, I had a seven-room house. You see this wool coat? It was my everyday coat. For the theater, I had a gray Persian jacket and a hat to match.”
And another answered, “Do you know the Opera House in Berlin?...My husband and I attended regularly. We had a subscription. We had such beautiful times.”
I cannot judge and will not judge. I cannot know how I would behave in the same situation, chas v’shalom.
In fact, I well understand the brooding women. I can picture myself becoming depressed and lethargic after years of persecution and transit camps while my people are being genocided.
But as for those who boasted of their former life among the German elite...that same German elite who dumped them into this camp, Nexon, where 1000 fellow Jews died over the course of one winter from lack of hygiene and protection from cold, plus malnutrition.
The nauseating smell of excrement constantly permeated the entire camp.
And yet…“Germany, ah, Germany”?
The entire Jewish population of Europe was being massacred by the same people who gave them the Frankfurt Theater and the Opera House in Berlin.
The same ones!
"Farewell, Traitorous Homeland!" vs "Germany, ah, Germany..."
In the camps or on the run, frum Jews longed for their old Shabbos meals with their families. They longed for peace and enough food to eat. They longed to be reunited with their loved ones.
They did not constantly reminisce about material luxuries or halachically forbidden pastimes. (Yes, of course they missed having food and hot baths, but they did not obsess over former luxuries or their former society that betrayed them. They missed actual people and uplifting spiritual times.)
Upon liberation, Jews felt desperate to leave blood-soaked Europe. Many wanted to go to Eretz Yisrael. Even the ones who ended up in America or South America or England usually tried to go to Eretz Yisrael first.
Who wanted to go back to Germany (or Poland or Czechoslovakia or…)?
For example, in A Daughter of Two Mothers: When one Shoah-survivor returned to take final leave of the small Carpathian town where she’d enjoyed several beautiful years with very special Jews (and where most of the non-Jewish population sided with the Nazis against the Jews), she said, “Good-bye forever…I hope never to return to this place!”
Later, upon leaving Budapest (where she’d lived in the lap of luxury) for Eretz Yisrael, she said, “Farewell to you, disloyal homeland that betrayed my people…But you, Hungary my homeland, you betrayed us, your Jews…Farewell, traitorous homeland, forever. I will never return here.”
That's right. Despite the pampered lifestyle she’d enjoyed in Budapest, this young woman never sighed, “Hungary, ah, Hungary…” after she saw the collaboration of many Hungarians with the Nazis.
In fact, the only thing she'd missed from her former wealthy life was her sewing machine, which she eventually found and took to Eretz Yisrael and sewed tsnius clothes and clothing l'chvod Shabbat and Chag. (In other words, even this material tool was used for spiritual reasons.)
Most Shoah survivors echo Leichu’s reaction, wherever they were from.
Yet within the life-destroying camp of Nexon, some women boasted of and yearned for their former German lives even as that same culture and those same people tortured and murdered them in all sorts of horrible ways.
Meaning, the EXACT SAME PEOPLE & CULTURE that brought you the Berlin Opera House and the Frankfurt Theater and the fashion culture of Persian jackets with matching hats were the EXACT SAME PEOPLE & CULTURE that also brought you Auschwitz, gas chambers, Buchenwald, Nexon, and the insufferable cattle cars.
This is definitely food for thought.
"Mitrayim, ah, Mitzrayim..."
They couldn't stop looking over their shoulder back at their previous life in Germany.
And they reminded me of another group of people who either complained or boasted and lived in the past and kept looking over their shoulder back toward their former culture:
“We remember the fish that we ate in Mitzrayim free [of mitzvot], the cucumbers, the watermelons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic.” (BaMidbar 11:5)
Okay, it’s not exactly the same.
In the Midbar, they were surrounded by Divine Clouds and feasted on mann. Very different than a deplorable Nazi camp, to be sure.
But the point is, they were missing their former empty meaningless life of spiritual darkness.
Yet it goes even deeper than longing for unimportant material luxuries (like the taste of watermelon or the sound of opera).
It’s that yearning for the spiritual darkness, which is mistakenly seen as light.
The Darker Implications beneath Such Yearning
In other words, it’s not something to get nostalgic over.
In fact, if you’ve read Rav Avigdor Miller’s A Divine Madness, you see the opinion of many Gedolim that the immersion in gray Persian jackets with matching hats and regular attendance at an opera house—all chinam (free of mitzvot, according to Rashi)—is part of what landed them in the transit camps in the first place.
Again, that's not me saying it. That's Rav Miller and other Gedolim.
But like I said, I’m not here to judge people who find themselves in the middle of a decade-long genocide.
I can't know if I'd be any better or different.
Maybe I'd even be much worse.
Breaking COMPLETELY Free of Mitzrayim
I need to judge myself, not others.
But yeah, I could put on blinders and luxuriate in feelings of superiority.
After all, I already live in Eretz Yisrael and I’m already happily living a non-American lifestyle. Also, I have not been to America in over 16 years, nor do I have any desire to return. (In fact, at this point in life, the thought of making a visit to America fills me with dread. But I didn’t always feel that way.)
So I could put on blinders and luxuriate in feelings of superiority.
But I think I would be very wrong to do so.
I think people (including frum people) can still have attachments to Mitzrayim, even if they’ve left and don’t miss it overall.
And before you dismiss the boasters and complainers as Erev Rav, please remember than Erev Rav influence us (if we let them) and we have gotten punished for Erev Rav sins and incitement. This was true in the Midbar and this is true today.
One can leave (or get thrown out of) Mitzrayim and still boast of their old Mitzrayim life and complain about their new Midbar life (or get caught up among people who do).
But what are the things they miss?
Watermelons. Opera. Theater. Gray Persian jackets with matching hats. Luxury homes. Cukes.
All produced by the very people who are annihilating them.
Are we attached to anything that is killing us (spiritually or physically)? Or to pastimes or fancies produced by people who are trying to annihilate us (spiritually or physically)?
If so, what?
And how should we detach?
(Hint: Filling ourselves up with Torah gradually elbows out all the garbage.)
B'ezrat Hashem, May we all succeed in completely leaving our own Mitzrayim.